Pitt Magazine Homepage Table of Contents
FEATURE

First-year College Students Aren't the Only Ones
with Freshman Jitters. One New Teacher Discovers There's More to
College Teaching than Meets the Syllabi.

COMING TO TERMS
WRITTEN BY TIM ZIAUKAS
I am driving through the AlleghenyNational Forest, a half-million acres of primal woods that are about to become my backyard. On the seat next to me, there's a AAA map with the roads from Pittsburgh to Bradford, Pennsylvania, my destination, highlighted in bright yellow marker.

At a glance, the yellow trail on the map looks like a question mark. Route 28 North, over to 66, the yellow trail glows, then onto Route 6, and finally 219, the road to Bradford, the site of one of Pitt's regional campuses. There I am about to begin a career in college teaching. I try not to think about question marks, bright yellow ones in particular, but to focus on the forest outside.

The woods leading to Bradford are distractingly beautiful. Huge pines and hemlocks make up a natural cathedral, filled with deer and bear, crows and hawks, wondrous worshippers. I feel like a tourist.

I turn down to Route 219. Twenty miles to Bradford, the sign says. I know where I'm at now and throw the map into the back seat. Twenty miles to a new life.

I pull into Bradford, the icebox of the nation—it's often the coldest spot in the lower 48—home of Marilyn Horne, the opera star, Zippo, the windproof lighter, and, now, to me.

"Okay,"I say, driving down Main Street, looking for the turnoff to my new address. "You wanted to be a college professor and here you are!"

"A first-year college professor,"some devilish voice tickles the back of my brain.

Whatever does that mean, I wonder, as I park.

I was about to find out.

"Welcome to Bradford!"

The voice was friendly, exuberant, and seemed to be coming from New Delhi, not from just over the lettuce in the large, bright supermarket. Shailendra Gajanan's face split into a smile. He, his wife Rekha, and little daughter, Mahita, made up a serendipitous and spontaneous welcome wagon.

If in Casablanca, everyone goes to Rick's, in Bradford, they go to Tops, the big supermarket serving the city with most amenities and also acting as town square and florescent-lit, air-conditioned bazaar. Tops is fun.

"Have you moved in yet?"he asked, introducing me around. Mahita was far more interested in the juicy-looking grapes than in me or my arrival.

Gaj, as he is known, is from Madras, India, teaches economics in the social sciences division, and has some genuine interest in my coming. He served on the search committee that hired me.

"We start teaching in a week or so,"he said beaming. "Are you ready?"

"Oh, yeah,"I tried to sound upbeat. In truth, I had mixed feelings about the whole thing at this point. "I'm ready."

"Good,"he said in a way that had the fatality of punctuation. "You're going to love this place,"he said, meaning Pitt-Bradford, not Tops, and waved good-bye while chasing Mahita down the corridor of soda and chips. "You're going to love it here."He was gone.

"Here" is in the Appalachian Mountains, three miles from the New York border, 165 miles north of Pittsburgh, and 80 miles south of Buffalo. In other words, it's its own place. About 10,000 people live in Bradford. The city is in a valley at the point where the east and west tributaries of Tunungwant Creek converge. That's a Native American term for either "crooked creek"or "frog,"depending on whom you talk to. Everyone calls it Tuna Creek for short.

People started coming here in the 1830s, mostly for the lumber, a then-seemingly inexhaustible supply of timber exceeded in richness only by its beauty. Hardy folks followed and soon the forest was filled with the sound of trees cracking and of tough, industrious people digging out a hard life.

Then, in the summer of 1859, four years after a political squabble changed the name from Littleton to Bradford, the world's first commercial oil well—Drake Well—was drilled in Titusville, 45 miles south of Bradford, and, of course, the site of another of Pitt's four regional campuses. (The other two are in Johnstown and Greensburg.) The bit that dipped into that underground ocean of wealth caused a ripple that transformed the town of Bradford.

By 1875 there were wells and wildcatters all over town, some speculators making millions and building mansions, some still standing on Congress Street. The last quarter of the century boomed.

"With 7,000 producing wells in the district averaging 65,000 barrels a day,"writes historian Paul Giddens, "Bradford was the oil metropolis of the world in 1880. Its population exceeded 11,000, and its post office was the third largest in Pennsylvania."

The boom days of Bradford were long gone, of course, when the University of Pittsburgh came to open a regional campus here in 1963. But the town still boasts a number of national and international firms like Dresser Manufacturing, the Kendall/Amalie Division of Witco Corporation, and, of course, Zippo Manufacturing, of Zippo lighter fame.

Pitt-Bradford started on a wing and a prayer, some courses taught in the show windows of what is now a furniture store on Main Street. But it grew and by the mid-'70s moved to its present site a mile from downtown on the space once occupied by an airport. In 1979, the college became a four-year, degree-granting institution.

Today, I'm part of a 70-member faculty who hold advanced degrees from Cornell, Harvard, Stanford, and Pitt, among others. We teach 1,300 undergraduates and offer, according to the promotional literature, four-year programs in psychology and business management, history/political science, nursing, sports medicine, writing, English, chemistry, geology, economics, communications, computer science, public relations (what I mostly teach), and many more.

And I'm told no matter where you come from, whether you're faculty, staff, or student, sooner or later, come hell or high-Tuna Creek water, some of that pioneering spirit still left over from the lumber and oil days will get under your skin or into your soul. Most agree the edge it offers is a plus.

That hardy self-reliance of the earlier Bradford settlers hadn't landed on me by the time I came face to face with my first day of full-time college teaching.

I got little sleep the night before, too much coffee the morning of. I had a racing heart, sweaty palms, prepared too much, prepared not enough. I had nothing to say. I had everything to say. I bought a new tie. It was the only thing I was really sure of. It was red. It was nice.

"Hey!" I thought to myself, "I've got a couple of master's degrees, worked for magazines and newspapers, toughed it out in institutional public relations for years. What's there to be nervous about?"It didn't work. I was sweating before dawn. So I went out to school, hours before class, to walk around and hand wring.

The Pitt-Bradford campus is beautiful. The flat plane on which aircraft once landed and took off is set amid an amphitheater of hills that are amazing in every season. After the campus moved here, the architects had mounds of earth deposited to give texture to the airstrips and a rolling, more natural feeling.

But what you notice about the campus are the magnificent hills that surround the place, hills that sometimes seem to brood and protect, other times become a riot of vegetation. By October, it's like being in a bowl of Trix: raspberry red, lemon yellow, orange orange.

The hills change with the hours as well. In the mornings just after dawn, the mist from between them rises up in sinister, smoke-like clouds and curls, suggesting a deep fissure in the earth. When I got there that first morning, I walked around campus and watched the brightening hills steam with morning mist. When the steam stopped, it was time for me to go to work.

The first class was in Room 236, Swarts Hall, 8:30 a.m. A writing class. Many undergraduates are not enthusiastic about much at 8:30 in the morning. But when the class started, so did they—and so did I. It happened. I had far too much material to cover, of course, keeping them a minute or two over.

Gaj, head of the welcoming committee from that day in Tops, had his office across the hall from the room where I taught the writing class and, subsequently, we'd bump into each other before or after class. He caught me that first morning as I left class.

"How did it go?"he asked.
"I don't know,"I said weakly, "I guess okay."
"You kept them over the first day!"He was incredulous. "They hate that."
I made a sound of undetermined meaning.
"First days are hard,"he said encouragingly.
My spirits failed to lift.
"Look,"he bottom-lined it, "did you pass out?"
"No."
"Did you throw up?"
"No."
"Did you tell them what you wanted to tell them?"
I thought deeply.
He continued: "Did you tell them what they needed to know?"
"I think so."
"That's fine."He slapped my back. "You did fine. It'll feel better later."
He was right.

The term, of course, got up on its legs and started to trot through the weeks. October faded into the mighty chill of a McKean County winter—"the long haul,"as it is often called here. In the meantime, I taught.

There's a lot of interaction with students in class and after—the student-teacher ratio is 14 to one, intimate by most schools' standards, so we really get to know the students, and they us. We see them during office hours and socialize at the many public lectures, receptions, films, and readings that occur throughout the year.

I was busily taking each class as a new challenge, getting advice from a handful of superb colleagues for whom teaching is a passion, a way of life, a cause. So much to learn: how to write effective assignments; what constitutes a good question or a bad one; how to get one assignment to speak to another, like the architecture of buildings on a street; and how to, then, build assignments into a course; what does it mean to lead a discussion; what is the role of an advisor. A meeting here, another there, the term turns quicker than the colors on the hills.

One day, a week or two into the second term, a sophomore named Rob stopped in my office to talk. (The names of students have been changed to protect the young and the naēve, the restless and the rambunctious.) Rob was "undeclared, major-wise"(as another student said to me that term) but was interested in writing, was clearly bright, as his transcript and his advisor pointed out, and thought maybe he could combine his interests in public relations.

It seemed that despite his abilities, Rob was terrified of public speaking, and he had rightly heard that the PR game, as it were, often involved the display of these skills. Rob implied that speaking in front of people was up there with organ transplantation and the real value of pi—skills and quandaries he'd rather avoid. And besides, he wasn't sure he was even coming back next term.

I did my best to show him that presenting before a class was actually easier than checkbook balancing, much less pi, and that after the first few, it's just something else you do. We decided it was okay to not be great at it right away. ("The water's got to run rusty before it runs clear,"as my grandmother used to say. ) But he didn't look completely convinced—a look very like mine with Gaj at Tops.

"Hmmmmmm,"he tilted his head as he got up to leave. "I'll think

about it."

"Sign up for a writing class next term,"I threw down a challenge. "We'll have fun."

"I'll let you know."

He was gone.

"Some of the FUN HERE," says Pitt-Bradford President

Dick McDowell, talking to a group of faculty and staff in an informal chat, "is that we're developing a new school, and very few people are doing that now."

Dick likes to say that we're serving a region the size of the state of Connecticut at Pitt-Bradford. I'll hear him say that a few times this year. This first year, though, I'm trying to serve an area the size of my office. I can't think about Connecticut.

Anyhow, he continues: "I'm not sure where you would find a major research university that dedicates one of its colleges to be a public liberal arts college. Here we have a place apart from the hustle and bustle of Pittsburgh, a place to focus on the liberal arts with a dedicated and serious faculty, a faculty for whom teaching is the paramount activity, a visceral commitment to undergraduate education, to the liberal arts."

Pitt-Bradford, like much of higher education, is currently trying to redefine the liberal arts for our revolutionary time—and for parents and students who require that their tuition dollars translate into the graduation of career-minded alumni who become informed citizens, aware of their context in our culture. It is a moving target and a big order.

"But getting there is not only all the fun, it's part of our mission,"Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs Carol A. Baker says of this effort to redefine the liberal arts for these postmodern times. "We need to constantly work at redefining what we do, how we do it, and why. It's our approach to teaching that makes us a liberal arts college."

The recently implemented general education curriculum Baker spearheaded ensures that Pitt-Bradford undergraduates, "whether [they] major in nursing or writing, computer science or political science, will have the same requirements for that general education foundation,"and, in turn, a liberal arts foundation as well.

"The curriculum teaches students how to learn, how to become a part of a community of learners,"says Baker. "So while the subject of a course may appear to be more professional than some of the other traditional liberal arts majors, the approach to that subject draws on the interdisciplinary richness of the liberal arts. The topic—the major—can change; the subject, however, is always learning. We teach undergraduates how to think. They can use whatever lens, whatever major, they choose. And in a word, that's what makes Pitt-Bradford a liberal arts college."

In the spring term, I got to develop a new course called Environmental Public Relations. We're covering case studies of famous crises—Exxon, Three Mile Island, Bhopal—but we're also looking at the mythic consciousness of American environmentalism. So we read Henry David Thoreau's Walden along with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and bits of Al Gore, Dixie Lee Ray, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold, among other pieces of environmental writing. But Thoreau was literally and figuratively at the center of the course. It was challenging, to them and to me.

Walden is a hard book to read and to teach. It's an American classic about a man who went to live at a pond for a time, in order, presumably, to get in touch with nature and with himself. That is the last simple thing you can say about it.

The book is tough but perfect for this class. Thoreau's topic is the language of nature, and one with a point of view, an agenda that is clearly stated. (The book hasn't become the sacred text of the environmental movement for nothing.) So while Thoreau's topic is the language of nature, his subject is the nature of language.

Despite my best efforts and the able advice of two seasoned Thoreau pedagogues—Pitt-Bradford's Vince Kohler and Pitt-Oakland's Michael West—I don't think my first time through the text was as successful as it could have been.

("Better luck next time,"Gaj bottom-lined it.)

But one of the students in that class taught me a curious lesson.

I was in my office an hour or so before Environmental Public Relations near the end of the term, and Eileen was suddenly standing in the door frame, arms holding onto the sides, filling the space.

"Walden,"she announced as if she was about to spell it in a spelling bee, and then she began her story.

It seemed that Eileen had to read a section of Thoreau in another class, and, as initial discussion of the text was beginning slowly there as well, she piped up with her own exegesis of the classic nineteenth-century text.

"It's about metaphors,"she said. (I had never actually said that in our class, but, of course, she was right.) "Thoreau is aware that he is in the act of writing a book, and he is aware of us as readers. There's a real self-awareness of language on the part of the voice of this book that is, I think, meaningful."

A heady silence filled the room, Eileen reported, as she veered the discussion in a new direction—the nature of language.

"You have to approach the book as if it were a poem."Eileen repeated her discussion. "Walden is not conventional autobiography."Her second course through Walden Pond had begun.

"They were blown away!"She was jumping in my office. We laughed, and then Eileen taught me something about teaching and learning that I had felt but never articulated until she did it for me.

It was easier this time, she said, because some of the notions were things she could recognize.

"I don't think you can ever read a really hard book,"she said. "You can only re-read it. You can never really learn something straight off; you can only recognize something that you've already learned before."

Of course!

"Cool,"Eileen concluded and kind of bounced out of my office. I had an itch to teach Walden again.

Real cool.

Commencement is a beginning and an initiation. It is a beautiful spring day at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, and we are dressed in caps and gowns, the medieval regalia that, through the ritual of the event, links us with the billions of commencers who have come before us, and countless to come after. It is strange seeing some of my students in these outfits: Rick and Dean, Michelle, Eileen. They look like us now. Members of the club.

It is me, of course, feeling the conclusion of my first year of college teaching, who is being initiated as surely as any of these young people.

Bettina Gregory, the television news correspondent for ABC News and our commencement speaker, is doing a good job. She shows us, through the story of her professional life, that while talent is important, perseverance is the key.

At the end of her speech, a champagne cork is popped deep in the ranks of the graduating seniors (a time-honored rite-within-a-rite from sea to shining sea). They're ready to get on with it.

We file out into the beautiful sunlight, surrounded by hills as richly and gaudily dressed as we are. I meet Eileen's parents. Watch President McDowell beam busily over the event. See, in fact, the whole year pull together into this one visual. Feel a part of something.

Gaj sees me and waves over a sea of mortar boards.

I wave back, and I recall our conversation that first morning after that first class. It returns with a mythic shimmer provided by the rite, the sunlight, the hills.

"Did you tell them what you wanted to tell them?"he had asked.

I looked around at Rick and Dean.

"Did you tell them what they needed to know?"

I think so. Eileen and Michelle. Bob and Ann. I think so.

Then I saw Rob, the sophomore, the undecided.

"Hi!"I waved and pointed at him: "See you next year?"I asked in a way that was more declarative than interrogative.

"Yeah,"he said. "I'll see you next year."His advisor had signed him up for one of my classes. "I'm coming back!"

Me too, Rob. Me too.


Pitt Magazine Homepage Table of
Contents